For more than three decades, Bronx-born Abel Ferrara has been making movies defiantly on his own terms — tough, often lurid genre pieces that frequently explore the seamier underside of New York, all shot with a singular voice that remains uncompromising. Films like The Driller Killer, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant endure as cult classics, while his later work such as Mary and last year’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth continue to fascinate. He might also be the only person bold enough to publicly pick a fight with Werner Herzog. (They’ve since reconciled, so all is well.)
Fans of Ferrara’s particular brand of cinema are in for a treat this week, with Drafthouse films rereleasing his vigilante gem Ms. 45 to select theatres. The director’s 1981 feature is an unforgettable descent into darkest revenge, when a young woman — played by then 17-year-old Zoë Tamerlis, who would go on to pen Bad Lieutenant — takes up arms against mankind after being subjected to two brutal rapes.
Ferrara called in from Rome, where he’s currently in pre-production on a Pasolini biopic with Willem Dafoe, to reminisce about Ms. 45, the late, tragic Tamerlis, feminism, and that time his movie terrified a hardened grindhouse crowd into silence.
You don’t always talk about your old stuff, so what’s it like for you, looking back now on a film that’s 30-odd years old?
Abel Ferrara: Ms. 45 was one of those films where we were still kids, you know. We were still trying to make it in the world, and just going at it with a lot of wide-eyed wonder. We were very pre-jaded. I mean, we had to convince ourselves that we were making a film that was even gonna be seen in theaters. But we kinda knew it. I think Ms. 45 was the first film where we went, “Jesus Christ, people are actually gonna make money from this — we’d better f-cking concentrate here. People are actually gonna buy tickets, so it might be a good idea to kinda focus,” you know what I mean. It’s a tough thing, with Zoë, you know. [Tamerlis Lund passed away in 1997] The movie is her, and embodies her. The beautiful thing about a film is that it captures one moment in time; and that film captures her as a 17-year-old Columbia student, you know– not on hard drugs, not drinking, with a different kind of take on life. She was a beautiful kid, you know, with the whole world in front of her.
Does it ever surprise you that your early films, like this and Driller Killer, continue to live on like they do?
If you do what we do, man, you’re not doing it for f-cking what? It’s not a combustible deal, you know what I mean? You put your sh-t out there. You’re doing it to last. You’re doing it for people to see today, tomorrow, 400 years from tomorrow, you know. Countless eons. Putting the movies back into theaters, that’s pretty cool. I was living in Brooklyn and I started to see those theaters popping up, Nitehawk and all those things. Put it this way: the tradition of the cinema is a communal effort, in a communal viewing situation, and seeing deep into the eyes of the players, you know? You watch a stage performance, okay, you’re getting it because you’re in the same physical space as the actor; but if you see it in a movie, you’re getting it because his eyes are the size of a three-story building. The eyes are the windows to the soul, man, and you’re seeing into that. It’s a little tough to see when you’re standing in a subway watching it on your iPhone. Although, I’m as guilty of watching movies that way as anybody else — and passing judgement on films. Like, “Oh, I saw that film, yeah.” I saw it between stops, freeze-framing the naked chicks and going back and forth, blah blah blah, seeing it over four days, that kind of shit. “Yeah, I saw your film, man.” I mean, is that really seeing a film? But then, a film’s gotta hold up, you know; that’s just the way it is.
I can’t wait to see this on a big screen. Looking at Ms. 45 now, it feels raw to watch, especially when — for lack of a better term — “cult movie” sensibilities have gone mainstream through people like Quentin Tarantino.
Quentin did that by himself? [Laughs]
Not at all, no. He popularized it, I mean. If you look at stuff like Kill Bill and Death Proof, they’re kinda like comic-book female vengeance fantasies. Do you think genre films have lost some context in being assimilated by the mainstream?
That’s a tough question. Ms. 45 has an element of the time and the period, but it’s all a passion, you know. It’s a passion for the real deal. I mean, you grow up on films like The Battle of Algiers and Salò and Sam Fuller, you know — I could go down the list — there’s a passion for a certain kind of film. That had better not be gone. I mean, I don’t know — the grittiness of it meaning what?
I mean, I’m not singling out Quentin for anything in particular.
[Laughs] Aha! I mean, you like Quentin, right?
Yeah, I do. I’m not trying to pick a fight between you and him or anything.
[Laughs] No, Quentin’s my homeboy! I ain’t gonna fight with Quentin.
No, no I like his stuff. I guess what I’m saying is that in a lot of his films — and there are raw elements, to be sure — the vengeance or whatever is in part quotation, whereas you see something like Ms. 45 and, as you say, you’re thinking, “Holy sh-t, this is the real deal.” It’s a window into that time.
Yeah, I know. But it’s still a movie, you know? It’s a movie-movie, man. Nobody’s raping a chick, she went to Columbia University. It’s a movie. As filmmakers, it’s a style we had at the time, you know. I mean, Quentin is what Quentin is, you know, and that’s cool. That’s his thing and you gotta see it on that side. I mean, you’re not gonna knock Buster Keaton for slapstick comedies, you know, because he’s a brilliant filmmaker. Is that the realism of Breathless? No.
Yeah, no I get you. Let’s move on shall we?
There’s a tendency sometimes to see movies in which women exact revenge as empowering or “feminist,” but you’ve said in the past that you don’t see Ms. 45 as a feminist movie. Do you still see it that way?
I think so. I saw the movie once in Times Square. It was playing with this film about the dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. I mean, the audience, it might as well have been Riker’s Island watching the film. This is like the real deal, the Manhattan that’s gone — getting high, drug deals, shots going off in the theater, place packed, Friday night. They show the movies for two weeks, everybody knows the lines in the theater. So I’m watching it, and we brought an investor, a white guy, and we couldn’t find him — he’s sitting in the middle of this non-white audience with a suit and tie. [Laughs] You can imagine that. We looked like Puerto Ricans at that time; we’re sitting in the corner, watching the f-cking movie. They showed Idi Amin first [1981’s exploitation movie, Rise and Fall of Idi Amin], it started off — and this was a real cool movie, man, before Forest Whitaker. It was way back. Some English guys made this movie. It was what you’re talking about. Real deal. You didn’t know if this was a documentary or what. And so then he started killing people. First he killed a priest. Then he killed another guy. Then he killed some white guys. And the audience is off the hook freakin’, man. They’re diggin’ it. And then they started killin’ black guys, and more black guys, and that audience was fever pitched out, okay.
Movie ends, up comes Ms. 45. They rape her, the first time — it’s like a comedy, okay. This is like, “Oh sh-t, it’s a rape, they’re raping a young… ” No — it’s like, “Yeah, man!” They were so into raping this chick that I was embarrassed to be there. I was mortified. I not only directed it, I acted in it. I’m raping her. [Ferrara himself plays “First rapist.”] You can just imagine. Then the second [rape], they do it even more. The audience is now exhilarated. Then she starts shooting guys, and this audience — as loud as they got for Idi Amin, they were quiet. When she blasts that dude between the legs with that gun, I’m telling you bro — it was like, I mean, I was stunned. Anyway, I forget what the question was.
Whatever it was, that was a better answer.
I was saying you didn’t see it as a feminist movie. I think you kind of answered it.
Yeah, I mean, how do I see it? I grew up through the feminist movement, you know what I mean, I was there for the whole thing. And “feminist” has different kind of connotations for me. The whole women’s liberation movement was something very real to me and the girls I was with, and being in university at the time, and all that. Zoë was like 10, 12 years younger than me or whatever, so it had a whole different meaning to her. Zoë was the ultimate feminist, you know, and she just sort of saw it in a different way. She’d talk all day and night about the feminism in this movie. I mean, listen, it was written by a guy, it was directed by a guy, but it was acted by her. The woman’s side of this movie is right there in the person who’s playing it.
Did Zoë shape the way the film was made?
How could she not? I mean, she’s in every shot of the film, you know.
How did you know that Zoë was the one for this? I know she’d missed out one of the leads in [Allan Moyle’s] Times Square, and that’s how she first came to your attention.
Yeah, she came in third. [Laughs] You know, it’s a thing that I have. It’s just something, I suppose it’s the gift of being a filmmaker. But I don’t think it takes much of a gift to look at that girl and say, “Wow, this is somebody,” you know what I mean? I mean, in the beginning maybe we were knocked out ’cause she was 17 and had the big lips and the beautiful body and all that, but then you go beyond that. There was something else about this girl. You didn’t have to spend much time with her to get it, you know? I mean, come on, the kid was like 16 or 17 at the time; she was an awesome chick. This was the chick who wrote Bad Lieutenant, you know, and she acted those scenes in that. You’re talking about a real talent. What can I say? You don’t have to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to figure it out.
I could never see her playing the role she was up for in Times Square, looking back.
Well, she’s in Times Square, you know. She’s running around with one of those trash bags on her.
Oh she is? She’s an extra?
Yeah, look for her. She’s got that garbage bag on her. She said to me, “You know, I made more money working two nights on that film than I’m making on your film.” [Laughs]
I’ll have to go back and have a look now. So, you’re shooting the Pasolini movie at the moment?
Yeah, I start in January. It’s 35 years later and no one knows what happened to the guy, you know. So it’s like the death of a poet. I adore Pasolini. The guy was a painter, a songwriter, a novelist, a journalist, a f-cking political activist, you know; a great actor, on top of being a great filmmaker. So you try and bring him to a human level, you know. Willem’s [Dafoe] gotta play him, so you gotta bring him down to a f-king human place. I told him, “You better bring your crown of thorns from the Scorsese film.” [Laughs]
There are a bunch of theories about Pasolini’s death; are you going to explore any of that?
Well you know, I gotta take it on — what am I gonna do? All of a sudden we’ve gotten into being detectives here, about what happened in that hotel room, you know? Pasolini said himself, when he would investigate the bombings in the train station [Pasolini collaborated on a documentary about the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombings in Milan, originally attributed to anarchists], he said, “I’m gonna tell the truth, but I’m not a detective, I’m doing it as an artist.” The death of Pasolini? Yeah. Some gay guy gets killed in an alley somewhere, hey, that’s one thing; but it’s also the death of a poet. It’s the end of an era. A guy died, and somebody killed him.
Alright Abel, I’m gonna let you go. Good luck with Pasolini.
Thanks man. Keep torturing the world.
[Laughs] We will if you will.